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John August Swanson papers and artwork

Identifier: Manuscript Collection No. 388

Scope and Content Note

The John August Swanson papers and artwork consist of biographical papers on the artist and his work; correspondence; printed material by or about the artist; reproductions and descriptions of his art; audio-visual material; telephone journals; photographs; and original artwork, prints and proofs. Notable items within the correspondence is a postcard that Swanson wrote to his mother while in England (1976), a transcribed email written for “Lewis” (undated) on the subject of Christianity and the arts, and extended correspondence with individuals such as Janaan Manternach, Stanley Johnson, and Panchita Seyssel. The correspondence also shows how Swanson's art is discovered, used, understood, displayed, and appreciated by individuals as well as organizations. In terms of artwork, the collection contains art representing all stages of the artist’s career. There are a number of pieces dating from 1969 through the early 1970s that demonstrate the early evolution of the artist’s technique and style. While most of the prints in the collection are serigraphs, there are some etchings, engravings, and lithographs as well. The oldest piece of artwork in the collection is an Untitled work (August 1968) containing a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which features printed text from the artist’s hand-carved alphabet. One of the strengths of this collection are the various working proofs that the artist used in developing the serigraphs as well as many of the hand drawn stencils used for making individual color layers of the serigraphs.


  • 1968-2021

Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Restrictions on Access

Unrestricted access.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

All requests subject to limitations noted in departmental policies on reproduction.

Biographical Note

John August Swanson is a Los Angeles-based artist specializing in the portrayal of biblical stories and scenes from everyday life. He was born on January 11, 1938, in Los Angeles. Both of his parents were recent immigrants to California when he was born; his mother was from Mexico and his father from Sweden.

Swanson’s art takes many shapes. He paints in oil, watercolor, acrylic as well mixed media, and is an experienced printmaker. The Morning Suite (1979) aptly demonstrates his printmaking versatility as it contains etchings, engravings, lithographs, and serigraphs (screen prints). Many of Swanson’s paintings have been adapted into limited-edition serigraphs, a medium he has championed. These serigraphs necessitate an advanced level of technical acumen and typically feature 30 to 60 separate colors, each of which require a separate stencil drawn by the artist. Swanson’s elaborate serigraph process results in pieces that have unique textures and colors that are characteristic of his mastery of this medium. The Procession (2007) is the most elaborate of Swanson’s serigraphs; it contains 89 separate colors. Swanson worked closely with master printer James F. Butterfield II of Aurora Serigraphics to produce many of his serigraphs, but with Butterfield’s passing in January of 2011, Swanson no longer makes serigraphs. Many of the pieces he produces now are paintings that have been modified into limited-edition giclées (high-quality, fine art prints produced on professional-grade inkjet printers).

While Swanson’s serigraphs are often intricately developed and are quite sophisticated in their design, they convey stories that are meant to be easily understood. In November of 1971, Swanson traveled to Mexico for five weeks and was inspired by the art and the people there. At this moment, he decided to use his art to tell stories in a linear approach. Overall his style is rather eclectic. He attributes as his influences the "imagery of Islamic and medieval miniatures, Russian iconography, the color of Latin American folk art, and the tradition of Mexican muralists” (artist's biography; box 1, folder 1).

The subject matters that Swanson treats most often in his art are biblical stories, scenes from live performances (e.g., circus or theatre), and scenes from everyday life. He draws inspiration from both Old and New Testaments, but has a particular interest in retelling events in the life of Christ. He also portrays many mundane or menial tasks as serious and positive actions. In his art, Swanson praises the virtue of doing one’s best, regardless of their position. He writes, “The woman who irons her family’s clothes has as much dignity and worth as the statesman” (artist's biography; box 1, folder 1). There is also a strong social component to Swanson’s art; he has repeatedly stated that his art is his most social act.

Swanson has received considerable recognition for his art, including the Doctor of Humane Letters degree from California Lutheran University (1996), the Mother Teresa Award (2005), the Dean's Medal from Emory University, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Award (2012). His art is held in a number of prestigious collections, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, National Museum of American Art, National Air and Space Museum, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the Vatican Museum’s Collection of Modern Religious Art. Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has the largest collection of his work on public display.


33.4 cubic feet (38 boxes)


Consists of the artwork, correspondence, and papers of artist John August Swanson.

Arrangement Note

Organized into ten series: (1) Artist's background; (2) Printed media about John August Swanson; (3) Artwork reproductions and descriptions; (4) Correspondence with institutions, churches, and organizations; (5) Personal correspondence, (6) Telephone journals, (7) Audio-visual material, (8) Photographs, (9) Printing sample booklets; and (10) Original artwork, prints, and proofs.


Processed by Brandon Wason, 2015-2021.

John August Swanson Papers and Artwork, 1968-2021
Pitts Theology Library, Emory University
Date encoded: May 9, 2016
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Pitts Special Collections and Archives Repository

1531 Dickey Drive
Atlanta GA 30322 USA